When I bought what I  thought were three distinct varieties of garlic bulbs to plant last fall (more on that later) from my neighboring u-pick farm, Burres Berry Patch,   I was joining a horticultural tradition that goes back 5,000 years.IMG_2815

We prepped a garden bed and carefully noted where we were planting each of the three types.

  1. Kilarney Red, a hot, strong Rocambole garlic. It’s a hardneck variety, and reputed to have a deeper, more full-bodied flavor than softneck types.  They usually produce 8 or 9 cloves per bulb with no smaller inner cloves.  They are easily peeled, which is good, but those loose skins evidently give then a shorter shelf life.  I don’t think we’ll have any trouble using them up first.  Yum!
  2. Transylvania Garlic, which according to the Burbee web site, originally came from a small village in the Transylvanian mountains, where it was discovered at a Romanian farmers’ market in the 1990s. Its’ large, creamy white bulbs show a touch of purple and they can produce as many as 16 hot cloves per bulb, each with a, sharp bite.  It stores well.
  3. Chapuka Mountain is the third type we planted. I really don’t have any info about it, but it came highly recommended according to my friend Colleen.  So the Chapuka is still a garlic mystery to me.

We tucked the garlic into its new bed last fall on October 28.IMG_2818

Almost nine months later, on July 24, we harvested our first ever garlic crop, and what a thrill it was.  Two of our types are softneck, and the other is hardneck, but when pulled them out of the ground, their bulbs all looked confusingly alike.

There may be a very good reason for that, which I found reading The Origins and Distribution of Garlic: How Many Garlics Are There?   Phillip Simon, USDA, Vegetable Crops Research Unit, Department of Horticulture, University of Wisconsin-Madison (Go Badgers!) has dug deeply into the roots of this esteemed herb.



Garlic appears to be one of the first plants we humans chose to cultivate.  Egyptians grew garlic 5000 years ago. Babylonians were spicing their dishes and filling their pharmacies with garlic as far back as 4500 years ago.  It’s been nurtured almost as long in China.

Garlic grew wild in Central Asia, and anyone who has grown garlic can imagine how easy it was for travelers to stick a few garlic bulbs in their pack for the road, take them home to, say, Egypt, pop a leftover individual clove in the ground and presto! — pull out a fresh new bulb a few months later. IMG_4539


Because garlic is propagated asexually by breaking a clove/clone from the parent, it reproduces its parent exactly and you get a very uniform, familiar crop.  What you don’t get is the genetic diversity that happens when different plants cross pollinate and create seeds that are a mash up of their parents – the process of sexual reproduction.

Because of this clonal cultivation tradition,, we still have essentially the same 1000 varieties that were collected in the wild and domesticated  several thousand years ago.  But since the 1980s some growers have been producing garlic seed and new types have been appearing.

It’s quite tricky to accurately identify a new garlic variety – or any variety, really.   There are some garlic types out there right now that are known by many different names, though all those names represent the same type, and it is very difficult even for experts to tell them apart.  After several seasons of close observation, mistakes can still be made.IMG_4533


That’s where genetic fingerprinting (the same techniques we have all seen used on crime procedural TV shows) enters the field of garlic cultivation – which is a very big field, worldwide.

A garlic field in California

A garlic field in California

Garlic is crop widely grown by many producers on a small scale for local markets and, particularly in the U.S., by a few large-scale producers for both processed and fresh sales. About 2.5 million acres of garlic produce about 10 million metric tons of garlic globally each year, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. That’s perhaps twenty times the weight of all the elephants on the planet!

Genetic fingerprinting could sort out the confusion in overlapping characteristics of present varieties, and track the new clones resulting from the new hybrids that will be entering the production stream for the first time in history.


Even more intriguing, fingerprinting tells us how closely related the various present-day types of garlic are.  Simon says, “In this way DNA fingerprints provide modern insights into historical events for which no other historical record is available. Comparative analysis of [garlic] DNA fingerprints have provided important insights about the origins and movement of human populations, {correlating the] cultivation and domestication histories of crops and farm animals, and sources of [human] disease organisms.”

How cool is that?garlic-in-hand

Do you have a favorite variety of garlic that you’ve kept a clonal connection to over the years? 

Where did you get it? 

One thing’s for certain – all of us garlic lovers are regularly enjoying the intense experience first prized by our distant ancestors.

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